Writing table / Bureau plat


Inventing the office: Living and working in the days of the Enlightenment

Office History Office Trends Arts and Culture

Kontors (foreign trading posts of the Hanseatic League), scriptoria and chancelleries sparked the development of a uniform type of space in the 18th century, the period of the Enlightenment. These concepts were, however, only turned into reality with the onset of industrialisation. While these rooms were reserved for office functions, they were not yet specially furnished for office work. Nonetheless, the office became a strategic place, which promoted creativity and provided an adequate setting for streamlining, planning and developing various types of work.

The Enlightenment was the heyday of scientific development and manufacturing. This period was marked by a transition from craftsmanship to industrial manufacturing, which, at the same time, gave rise to many new professions involving organisational and administrative duties. Office work was no longer reserved to trade and commerce, but began to play a role in practical duties and scientific work. Sorting, archiving, letter writing and administrative tasks were associated with trade and commerce, and began to take root in production, public administration and education. Apart from technical skills, these responsibilities required good reading and writing skills, reasoning and a strong understanding of arithmetics. Trading posts, government agencies, factories, schools and universities set up offices, which, while still bearing the name Kontor and chancellery, were much different from offices used by businesses and government bodies.

The Enlightenment rejected mythological and religious influences. As a result offices were furnished to reflect the ideal of reason, embodied by systematic and methodical work. In order to carry out office duties, people had to hone their intellectual abilities, which were acquired at school and work.

Work furthers education and human development

In the Enlightenment everything was illuminated and enhanced. Work gained in importance and empowered the middle class to turn against inherited aristocratic rank. People began to see work in a new light. While in the antiquity work had been considered a menial task and in the Middle Ages a constant struggle, in the Enlightenment it was seen as a tool for human development, which would empower the burgher. In the 18th century work became an educational principle, helping to elevate the bourgeoisie to the dominant class. Office work proved extremely productive, as it involved sorting and archiving tasks, and was thus highly respected.

The Enlightenment brought compulsory education to large parts of Europe by the end of the 18th century. Compulsory education was introduced to impart generally binding educational programmes, including reading, writing and arithmetics. Middle class children were therefore trained for intellectual, commercial, technical and administrative professions.

The office became independent

The offices of the Enlightenment centred on methodical, logical and systematic work – of which the latter two require abstraction. Reducing information to the most essential elements by abstraction led to high productivity.

In the Enlightenment work underwent profound change – from working in the field to working in the workshop, later in impromptu offices and eventually inside "enlightened" offices. This period of transition began with working outdoors, followed by working indoors for limited periods of time to permanently working inside. In the Enlightenment the office became a separate space, clearly delineated from private quarters.

Enlightenment dominated all areas of life

Enlightenment is not a prerogative of philosophy, as it had been stated by René Descartes (1596-1650) in his famous quote "I think, therefore I am", or by John Locke (1632-1704) in "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", or by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in "Critique of Pure Reason". Enlightenment filtered into all aspects of society in the form of thinking, understanding and reason and became manifest in many political systems across Europe as enlightened absolutism: Louis XIV (1638-1715) introduced the mercantile system, empowering the bourgeoisie while disfavouring the aristocracy. Maria Theresia (1717-1780) limited the church’s influence over the state and abolished serfdom and torture. Frederick the Great (1712-1786) headed a strictly organised system of civil servants that provided social services to the middle class.

To be able to work in an "enlightened" office, civil servants, merchants with strong mathematical skills, insurance experts, intellectual workers and chancellery staff had to be trained as office workers.

Not only do humans structure the office, but the office also imposes certain rules that govern human thinking, perception and conduct.
The Age of Enlightenment brought a certain degree of darkness and confinement upon humans, given that office work implies the loss of light and unrestricted movement, as is found outdoors. Office environments provide limited daylight and less fresh air, while at the same time dictating strict schedules and restricting movement and mobility.

Fighting till death

Adapting to the new offices proved to be challenging even in the 16th century. The famous case of a young aristocrat in the court chancellery of Maximilian I illustrates the dramatic impact of office work, which was regulated by strict discipline. This further shows how humans rebelled against strict schedules and rules of conduct. The aristocrat was tasked with making copies of a written text, but he only completed half of the work because he regularly went for walks. It angered him to be reminded of his duties and he went on the rampage at the chancellery. His colleagues had to lock themselves in their offices, after the nobleman ran door to door, forcefully defending his lifestyle. The bourgeois chancellery staff thought of him as idle, because they did not understand that his different lifestyle was the response to a changing world which he had not yet adapted to. Although rules had been in place, banning anyone from getting up from the Kontor desk and walking around, the aristocrat was unable to sit still in one place. He was used to moving around freely and he was driven by pride and passion.

Offices are defined by discipline

Even today, we still force ourselves to remain seated in one confined position, while, at the same time, resisting such trends. Back then this could be witnessed in Kontor buildings, chancelleries and offices, as well as factories, next to assembly belts, at universities and schools. As office work gained more and more in importance in the Age of Enlightenment and office workers took pride in their work, people began to remain seated for prolonged periods of time. As a result, instead of pedigree, discipline, education and intellectual work were the attributes that raised the profile of office workers. Being disciplined enough to remain seated in one place was interpreted as moving with the times. After duties such as planning, archiving and writing letters became more and more important, staff working in Kontor buildings began to focus exclusively on desk-oriented work.

Office furniture

Disciplined office work required new structures, which in turn inspired a novel type of furnishing. The main furniture in the period of Enlightenment included standing desks, chairs and a bureau – a desk covered with felt cloth. These pieces of furniture were designed to prevent habitual walking around and tied people to one place for an extended period of time. Standing desks and tables were placed next to each other until the 19th century. Standing desks, which originated in monasteries, have remained widely popular even today. They were the predecessors of the bureau.

The bureau is a desk – a compact office which requires only minimal space. It comes with writing surfaces, drawers and trays and is modelled on the escritoire. This set-up makes for a complete office, just like any home office. The bureau was invented in the early 18th century. Later, the name was also used to refer to a governmental office, usually furnished with such a bureau or.

In addition to desks, office furnishings included chairs. However, chairs back then did not resemble their modern counterparts, but were inspired by classical shapes such as Egyptian thrones for pharaohs or the throne of the Roman Emperor. The designs changed only after chairs began to be mass produced; with the first prototype produced in 1859 for Viennese coffee houses. Despite the increasing popularity of chairs, the word ‘chairman’ was only introduced in the 20th century.


The actions of managing, sorting, financing and archiving developed into a separate science in the 18th century called cameralistics – pioneered by the Austrian Johann Mathias Puechberg, the chief bookkeeper to the royal chamber. Cameralistics, the science for cameralists, governs the internal structure of public administration, just as office work is at the heart of organizations and institutions.

Cameralism is the science of economics (Oekonomie) and administration. On the one hand there was the science of trade and commerce, and on the other hand the science of public administration, order and financing. These ideas sparked the development of the industrial office.


Hajo Eickhoff